Australians need to understand China more, not less. Cultural understanding and positive bilateral relations are key to achieving geopolitical and economic stability in our region, and as the recent past has shown, education and research collaborations sustain relationships through turbulent political times.
Last week, I travelled to China as a participant and session lead in the 7th Australia-China High Level Dialogue led by former trade minister Craig Emerson. The dialogue had not been held since 2020. It’s resumption and the seniority of participants from key industry sectors across the economy – wine, tourism, arts and health – indicates the commitment by both countries to restabilise and reaffirm bilateral relations.
It was no accident that on the same day as the dialogue, held in the stately Diaoyutai State Guesthouse in central Beijing, Prime Minister Anthony Albanese announced he would visit China before the end of the year. Relations are warming.
This is not the time to be vilifying China, which, any way you look at it, will continue to be one of the most significant countries affecting Australia’s future.
Those of us who know from experience the genuine friendship, co-operation and collaboration in China with officials we have worked with for decades, and with mutually beneficial results, must ensure Australians do not fall into the too-easy trap of seeing only what we do not agree with.
These differences will always exist.
But there are also areas of common ground. It is too simplistic to just shut the door. It is invaluable to continue collaborating through education and university research, both of which have been the backbone for decades of our strong people-to-people links and, increasingly, our diplomatic relationship.
It cannot be ignored that it was, after all, the university sector, and in particular the research-intensive Group of Eight universities, that continued to have access to China and its officials when tensions with the Turnbull and Morrison governments left their ministers and officials shut out.
And it was the strong relationships built in China pre-COVID which helped secure agreement for students to continue their studies with Australian universities online. This was no small decision for China, given it represented an upending of long-term policy to the contrary. It shows clearly the value of people-to-people relationships and what can be achieved with mutual trust.
Walking together, with our eyes open
This doesn’t make us naive. Universities are living and working within a changing world, and the Go8 is alive to the risks that these new circumstances bring.
In fact, we were founding members of the University Foreign Interference Taskforce, a global exemplar. But if we are to tackle the great challenges of today – climate change, food and water security, antibiotic resistance, AI and automation, to name just a few – it is going to take a genuine global effort. In fact, it is naive to think that Australia – or any nation – could survive any of these threats alone. We need to walk this path together – but to do so with our eyes wide open.
The highest-quality research is an international endeavour – advancements are driven by the best and brightest in the world coming together to pool their knowledge and expertise for the common good. We see this every day.
The most recent dialogue provides us with an opportunity to now look forward, not backwards. It is time to recognise what we have in common with China, our largest two-way trading partner, while respectfully recognising our differences, and find a mutually beneficial path forward.
Whichever way it is dissected, the education and research relationship we have with China is long-standing, genuine, and will continue regardless of political winds.
While in China last week I was reminded of the proverb “give a man a fish you feed him for a day. Teach a man to fish and you feed him for a lifetime”.
Learning, education and knowledge can and does change our understanding, our relationships and the world. We need to know China more, not less.
Vicki Thomson is chief executive officer of the Group of Eight.